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Tour de France Basics

The Tour de France is in its final week and it's not too late to catch the action, especially with US rider, Levi Leipheimer, in contention for the win. Below is a 10-minute crash-course on the Tour de France. You can learn the basics and sound like a fan. Learn the difference between sprinters and climbers. Understand terms like peloton and how the scoring system works. Know the difference between the yellow and polka-dot jerseys.

Each year, about 200 cyclists take on the grueling challenge of completing roughly 2,000 miles in just 20 days. This test of endurance, teamwork, and strategy makes the Tour de France the most popular live sporting event in the world. More people attend the Tour each year than attend the World Cup, Super Bowl, Olympics, or any other sporting event. Below is a brief write-up to help you understand why the Tour captivates such an enormous audience.

The Tour de France dates back to 1903 when Henri Desgranges, a French journalist, started the race as a publicity stunt for his sports newspaper.

Object of the race
The Tour de France is a “stage” cycling race, meaning that there are multiple days, or stages, that comprise the race. The racer with the lowest accumulated time over the 20 stages is the winner. There are also several races within the race, such as the Points Competition and Mountains Competition (see below).

Length of race & terrain
The exact length varies because the route changes each year, but the race runs approximately 2,000 miles and is broken into 20 stages. The course is raced primarily in France, but several neighboring countries are visited as well. The race always finishes in Paris on the famous Champs-Elysees. The terrain throughout the course varies from relatively flat rides through the countryside to huge mountain climbs. The mountains fall into five classifications. Four is the easiest classification, followed by three, two, one, and Hors (too steep to classify). The Tour is so tough that many of the world’s best cyclists are unable to complete the race because of fatigue, sickness, injury, or inability to maintain a pace under the daily maximum time threshold.

Classification Jerseys
General Classification (Yellow Jersey or maillot jaune): This is the primary race. General Classification, or GC, is the accumulated time each rider has throughout all of the stages. Each day, the rider with the lowest GC wears a yellow jersey to identify him as the overall race leader. The rider that crosses the finish line on the last day with the lowest GC wins the Tour de France. It is very prestigious to wear the jersey, even for just a day.

Points Competition (Green Jersey): A secondary race during the Tour is the Point Competition. Points are earned every time a rider is a top finisher in the intermediate sprints and stage races. The rider (usually a sprint specialist) that accumulates the most points wears the green jersey.

Mountains competitions (Polka Dot Jersey): Another secondary race is for the “King of the Mountain.” Points are earned for being a top finisher over the categorized mountain climbs. The rider (usually a mountain specialist) that accumulates the most mountain points wears a red and white polka dotted jersey.

Several other jerseys include the Best Young Rider (white jersey) for riders under 26 with the lowest General Classification time and the Fighting Spirit (white on red jersey) for being the most aggressive rider.

Team roles
Corporations sponsor teams of 9 members who are not necessarily from the same country. Within each team, there are several roles.

Team Leader (patron): Teams usually have one member that is their contender for winning the race. The team leader must be a good all around racer and is usually a strong mountain climber and time trialist. However, without the support of his team members, the leader has no chance to win the tour.

Domestique: These riders are the worker bees whose job it is to give the team leader the best shot of winning. They block the wind for the leader, protect him, stop breakaways, and fetch food and water for the rest of the team.

Sprinters: Sprinting specialists focus on the secondary race of the Points Competition (green jersey). These racers are usually large, strong riders. They also support the leader.

Climbers: Climbing specialists focus on the secondary race of winning the Mountains Competition (polka dot jersey). These racers are usually smaller, lighter riders. They also support the leader.

Peloton: Most of the race is made up of relatively flat terrain. The racers form a peloton, or large group of racers, in order to be as efficient as possible. In the peloton, cyclists reduce wind resistance by “drafting” off other racers (also know as “slipstream”). Leading the peloton is the most tiring, and racers take turns in the lead.

Breakaways: Sometimes a few racers will attempt to get ahead of the pack and hold on to a lead to win the stage or an intermediate sprint. Most often, the peloton or a few other racers will “chase” them down before they achieve their goal. The efficiency of the peloton can overcome even large leads created on a breakaway of several riders. Breakaways and chases are an exciting strategy and component of the race.

Finishes: If no racers have made a breakaway, the peloton will “bunch sprint” at the end of a stage or intermediate sprint. Team members may “lead-out,” a strategy in which the sprinters draft behind a teammate, to get the sprinters in position just before the finish line. Racers who finish within one bike length of a group are all given the time of the first racer in the group. This is to prevent dangerous mass sprints.

Sprints: Within a stage there are often several intermediate sprints that count towards the Points Competition (green jersey). The sprinters and a few teammates will increase their pace and position themselves for a victory. As with stage finishes, teammates usually “lead-out” for the sprinter. Following the sprint, the exhausted sprinters fall back into the pack of the peloton.

Mountains: Within a stage there are often several category climbs that count towards the Mountain Competition (polka dot jersey). Racing up mountains is much slower, so the advantage of forming a peloton is diminished. Big leads can be opened up on the mountain races by mountain specialists and team leaders. In fact, some of the sprinters and larger racers struggle to avoid the daily time limit on the difficult climbs. These slower riders often become part of the “autobus,” a pace just faster than what they need to qualify.

Stage wins: Some riders are not contenders for the overall race, but it is very prestigious to win a stage of the Tour. They will strategize to accomplish a stage win.

Time bonus: Intermediate sprints and stage wins offer incentives of time reductions for the top finishers. In the beginning of the Tour, these bonuses can be the difference between who wears the yellow jersey. Later in the race, the time bonus is usually not significant enough to overthrow a leader.

Ordinary Stage: The first racer to cross the finish line in an ordinary stage wins the stage. These stages feature flats, hills and mountains and can include both intermediate sprints (for the Points Competition) and mountain climbs (for the Mountains Competition). Stages that focus primarily on climbing are know as “mountain stages.”

Individual time trials: Stage in which each cyclist races alone and attempts to have the fastest time over the stage.

Team time trials (TTT): Race in which each team races with only its members. The team is given the time of the 5th team member to cross the finish line. All racers within one bike length of their fifth racer receive the team time. There will be no TTT in 2006.

Prolouge: A short individual time trial before the official race used to determine the starting positions of the first stage of the race.

Race etiquette
The Tour has amazing self-enforced unwritten rules. For example, racers will not make an attack on a leader who has an equipment problem, is going to the bathroom, or is in the feeding zone. Additionally, they often let a rider lead the peloton through his hometown or on his birthday.

The Fans
Hundreds of thousands of fans line the racecourse each day for a chance to see the race and millions more watch the race on television. On the uphill portion of the mountain stages, many fans line the roads and run with the racers. One fan, known as Didi Senft, dresses as a devil and has become an icon of the Tour.

What to watch for in 2007
Aussie Robbie McEwen and Thor Hushvod are both contenders for the green jersey (sprint). However, the race for the yellow jersey is wide open again this year. This is the second year without 7-time winner Lance Armstrong (USA) because of his retirement. Additionally, last year's winner, Floyd Landis (USA), is sitting out this year due to doping allegations. The crackdown on doping continues to be a top story, but talk will turn to the event itself as soon as the race begins. The two American riders with the best shot at winning the race are Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie, both of team Discovery. Leipheimer will likely be the team leader for Discovery, but Hincapie, the former #2 behind Lance Armstrong during his winning streak, could move into the role if he races well early on.
Dates: July 7-29

Where to watch the Tour
Versus (formerly OLN): Versus provides live coverage of the Tour in the US. Versus is included with most basic cable packages and there is some live coverage from their website. The official race site for the Tour.

Entertainment for Tour enthusiasts
Tour documentaries: The Tour Baby is a documentary about the 2000 tour and has attained cult classic status for cyclists and Hell on Wheels is another good documentary.
Lance Armstrong biography: You must read It's not About the Bike to truly appreciate Lance and the tour.
Other cycling movies: You may also enjoy Breaking Away or American Flyers.